Driving through the industrial district that lies between South Central and downtown L.A.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon with Brian Reed, an English teacher at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in the South L.A. neighborhood of Florence-Firestone. Animo Pat Brown is a Green Dot school, which means it is a very rare breed--a unionized charter. The school is housed in a renovated lingerie factory and is airy and beautiful. The student body is 95 percent Latino.
Florence-Firestone is an inner city neighborhood with a fairly high crime rate, but many of the blocks are beautiful, with small bungalow homes boasting lovely front gardens. Other blocks are a bit more run-down.
illustration via New York
Vanessa Grigoriadis' New York exposé of Madonna's ill-fated intervention in Malawi is well worth a read, first for its discussion of the vapidity of celebrity philanthropy, and second for its revelations about the fraudulent and cultish Kabbalah Centre, which seems more interested in bilking rich people and flipping real estate than in teaching the tenets of mystical Judaism.
The whole nasty business reminded me of one of the enduring lessons I learned in Hebrew School: that not all tzedakah, or charity, is created equal. Indeed, the Talmud outlines eight ascending levels of tzedakah, which also means "fairness" and "justice:"
1. Giving begrudgingly
2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully
3. Giving after being asked
4. Giving before being asked
5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
Worth thinking about--especially number 7, I think.
One of Governor Andrew Cuomo's contentious budget cutting ideas is to consolidate very small school districts. I'm generally a tax-and-spend liberal, but this is a good idea, especially in relatively densely-populated parts of the state. I was reminded why today by the New York Times, which reported on a controversy engulfing the tiny Westchester village of Katonah, NY, not far from where I grew up. Katonah's school board would like to hire a superintendent named Paul Kreutzer, who happens to be the only superintendent in Wisconsin to have publicly supported Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to ban teacher collective bargaining.
Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Katonah teachers, parents, and students are loudly protesting Kreutzer's appointment.
But what really caught my eye was that if he does get the job, the 39-year old Kreutzer is set to earn $245,000 annually to oversee a district of just six schools and 3,800 students. Ninety-three percent of these kids are white, and just 1 percent are non-native English speakers. Approximately 0 percent of Katonah public school children participate in the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.
The nearby Bedford Central School District, which encompasses the more diverse town of Mt. Kisco, has seven schools and just under 5,000 students. There, 20 percent of students are Hispanic, 5 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian. Fourteen percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 7 percent are currently learning English. The superintendent in Bedford earns a lot of money, too, though less than the one in Katonah--about $225,000 plus benefits, according to the most recent data I could find. But he also has a somewhat more difficult job, serving a larger and more diverse population.
It would be good public policy to consolidate these two school districts, which are geographically contiguous with one another. Not only would it save money on administrative costs, but it would allow more children to enjoy the benefits of attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools.
Currently, New York State has some of the most regressive school districting in the country. Due to a system that has changed very little since the early 19th century, there are 697 school districts in New York.
In Florida, the state closest to New York in terms of population, there are just 74 school districts.
Politically, consolidating school districts is very controversial, even though larger school systems are often able to offer more course options and other perks. In large part, this is because consolidation is a full frontal attack on white privilege and class privilege. Currently, the ability to pay Katonah property prices and taxes earns a family the right to prevent their children from attending school with the children of Mt. Kisco's Guatemalan day-laborers. Some people move to Katonah instead of to Mt. Kisco for exactly that reason.
To be sure, neighborhood school zoning can lead to de facto segregated schools even within districts that encompass entire counties. But there are many good examples of progressive large school distrcits. Montogomery County, MD has made great strides in educating both affluent and low-income children in part because of the community's and administration's conviction that this should be a shared responsibility.
New York can do way better.
I am pretty blown away by Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer's investigative e-book revealing the depth of philanthropic guru Greg Mortenson's lies.
To summarize: Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which constructs schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is also the author of the best-sellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, which purport to tell the story of how Mortenson's 8-day kidnapping by the Taliban inspired him to commit his life to educating the children of Central Asia.
It is hard to overstate Mortenson's influence in the world of international philanthropy. When President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he donated $100,000 of his winnings to CAI. From fall 2009 to summer 2010, I worked full-time at The Daily Beast, mostly editing stories on philanthropy and international social issues. Mortenson's name came up again and again among my writers and the sources they interviewed. He was a huge celebrity, well-known from his speaking tours and media appearances, and was regarded as a hero for championing girls' education.
Now Krakauer, in a feat of reporting across cultural and linguistic boundaries, has revealed that Mortenson completely fabricated the tale of his kidnapping, that he renegged on a promise to build a school in the village of Khane, that he spent very little time in the places where his books are set, that many of CAI's schools are completely empty or lack teachers and basic supplies, and that just a fraction of the money the charity raises actually goes toward educating kids.
Nick Kristof, who has promoted Mortenson's work, responded to the revelations with a defensive column this morning, arguing that even if all these accusations are true, Mortenson has still "built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will."
I find this unconvincing. To me, the most troubling aspect of Krakauer's reporting is that Mortenson portrayed entire regions and ethnic groups within Pakistan as corrupted by terrorism, when in fact, at the time that his narrative purpotedly takes place, in 1996, there were no Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters in regions such as Ladha. In fact, it was only after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that, as Krakauer writes, "large numbers of Taliban fled across the Durand Line into the tribal areas of Pakistan, seeking refuge from American drones and bombers."
Mortenson's lies have deep political significance. They obscure the true effects of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and misrepresent Pakistan and the Pakistani people to the American public. In the words of sociologist Nosheen Ali, as reported by Krakauer:
"The most troubling irony is that the focal region of Mortenson’s work—the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage—has nothing to do with the war on terror, yet is primarily viewed through this lens in [Three Cups of Tea]."
What's more, in responding to Krakauer's allegations, Mortenson has engaged in more offensive cultural stereotying, claiming, "It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time." It is ridiculous to claim that any group of people do not know when a pack of lies have been spread about them. Here are the words--written in a letter to Krakauer--of Ghulam Parvi, CAI's former Pakistan program manager, who has split with Mortenson and his organization:
"...innocent people working with him in Pakistan, especially in Baltistan, had to face disgrace, loathsome from the society, religiously bashfulness and financial losses. Times and again Greg Mortenson was requested not to perform such acts, which bring bad name and defame to us, but he always very politely and smilingly neglected our requests."
The reporting and editing I've done on international social justice work has made me extremely wary of self-promotional, celebrity philanthropy. So often, the most amazing non-profit work is done by organizations and people you've never head of, folks like Molly Melching and Sunitha Krishnan, who live in the countries and communities on whose behalf they advocate.
What's more, celebrity philanthropy very often obscures the fact that without political, legal, and military reforms on-the-ground, no amount of private funding can eradicate problems such as sexual violence or girls' lack of access to education.
The upside of celebrity philanthropy, of course, is that it draws attention to important issues. But I hope this sordid tale serves as a reminder that the media ought to be far more skeptical and hard-headed about evaluating philanthropic claims, both domestic and international. Krakauer's reporting deserves to be celebrated.
I don't know why the front page of the New York Times is calling NYC schools chancellor Cathie Black's departure "surprising." Was anything more predictable? Over the past year, in cities from Newark to Washington, D.C. to Denver to New York, neighborhood protest movements arose to push back against the same few controversial policies being pursued by reform-minded mayors: charter school co-locations within public school buildings, neighborhood school closings, and more test-driven instruction.
Without getting into the merits and drawbacks of this agenda, the politics here have been clear for some time: There is absolutely no conensus among public school parents either in favor or against such changes. Neighborhoods are attached to the institutions that have served them for generations, regardless of whether these institutions are labeled as "failing." And sadly, the trend of school co-location in space-strapped urban centers has set charter school and neighborhood school communities in competition with one another, instead of encouraging a productive relationship of sharing best practices.
It seemed self-evident that, politically, the best person for Mayor Bloomberg to appoint to be the face of his education agenda would be someone who could soothe anxieties around race, class, neighborhood autonomy, and instructional best practices. Cathie Black was, almost comically, the opposite of all that. A publishing executive with no personal or professional experience with any public school sytem--let alone with the incredibly complex New York City public school system--Black sent her own two children to private boarding school in Connecticut, and had attended parochial schools herself. As my friend Elizabeth Green just noted on WNYC, one of Black's first comments upon visiting New York City school buildings was that they seemed "clean."
Black's replacement, Dennis Walcott--currently Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development--has a very different biography. He attended Queens public schools during the integration and community control struggles of the 1970s, so comes to the job with a deep appreciation of the difficult history of the New York City schools. A social worker, Walcott worked as a kindergarten teacher before pursuing a career in youth and anti-poverty advocacy, eventually serving as CEO of the New York Urban League.
Tellingly, Walcott has spoken clearly about the importance of neighborhoods and communities in urban policy-making. Here's what he said in a Q&A with the Department of Education's website:
"Just being from a neighborhood—I have a really clear perspective of neighborhood life and issues of neighborhoods and what that means. I haven’t moved too far from where I grew up so there’s still that balance of working class/middle class neighborhood and what that meant and what it reflects of the City. I think that’s always been a part of me and will always be a part of me so I’ve never moved away from that."
Chicago's incoming mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is promising to build 25 miles of new bike lanes. Emanuel understands that reclaiming road space from cars is not only good environmental and public health policy, but also plain good urban governance. Quality of life improves when we cut down on dangerous and noisy car traffic and make it more pleasant to be out and about on the street, meeting our neighbors and spending money in local stores.
But although the majority of New York City residents do not own a car (we're the only major American city where that is the case), three out of the five leading New York Democratic mayoral hopefuls are either wishy-washy on bike lanes or in outright opposition. The Times reports:
When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. [Anthony] Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.” ...
“Even if one appreciates some of Janette’s goals, it’s clear the approach has been very alienating all over the city,” said Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate. “There is a needless level of conflict. A lot of communities have become distrustful of the approach that the mayor and Janette have taken.”
A third potential mayoral candidate, Comptroller John Liu, also has a history of opposition to cycling legislation. To be sure, the politics here can be tricky. Liu and Weiner hail from districts that encompass suburban-style neighbohorhoods in Queens and Brooklyn where many residents do, in fact, drive. De Blasio, meanwhile, has tried to compromise on the issue. Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews--a powerful voting bloc--complain about cyclists breaking traffic laws and dressing immodestly. In 2009, de Blasio told an Orthodox Jewish news site:
“I think there [are] many places where the bike lanes make sense. I think there’s a great argument environmentally for more bike lanes, but not everywhere. There’s some places where their presence really does hurt; a commercial strip, there’s some places where there are cultural realities that need to be taken into account and there’s nothing that says you can’t have those conversations with the community up front and decide whether it makes sense or not, and really listen to a community."
There has been no city-wide poll on bike lanes, but in Park Slope, home of the controversial new Prospect Park West bike lane--and where de Blasio lives--a survey found only 22 percent of residents in opposition. Unfortunately, some of the opposition are pretty powerful.
Two other Democratic mayoral hopefuls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have supported bike lanes and--unlike Weiner, de Blasio, and Liu--were also in favor of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, which would have charged cars a toll for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street, in the process raising money for the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority. That plan died in Albany in 2008, in large part because Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver opposed it.
Good public space policy should be a cornerstone of the Democratic urban agenda. It's sad to see so many of the party's New York City standard-bearers continue to cede ground on this issue.
For my book writing course, I am reading and really enjoying Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller's joint biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon. It's a page-turning, deeply-reported account of how female musicians in the sixties and seventies exploded popular notions of what was appropriate for women to write and sing and speak publicly about. There was Joni Mitchell's "Little Green," a love song to the daughter she had out of wedlock and gave up for adoption; Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," an unmarried girl's cautiously hopeful--and wonderfully frank--ballad about entering into a sexual relationship; and Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does It Better," which Radiohead's Thom Yorke (decades later) called "the sexiest song ever written." (Watch this very 1980s Carly performance. He was sorta right.)
All three women experienced more than their fair share of heartbreak, but I was particularly moved by the story of Carole King's difficult early twenties. Her first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, was not only a manic-depressive addict, but had an open affair--and a child--with Jeanie Reavis (stage name: Earl-Jean), a pop/soul singer with a gorgeous, smooth voice. It was Carole and Gerry who co-wrote Earl-Jean's classic hit, the love song "I'm Into Something Good."
Carole found out about the affair and the baby, but didn't immediately leave Gerry. In fact, Goffin and King--by then hugely successful songwriters--bought a house in their white, suburban New Jersey neighborhood for Reavis to live in with her husband, their kids, and the new baby girl.
Both marriages (surprise, surprise) eventually disolved, and Carole moved to Los Angeles, where she launched her massive solo folk-rock career. And I maintain that her own performances of her songs are the classic ones--they are just so deeply felt. Here is one of my all time favorite love songs.
Sad news out of Washington this week on women's rights: The House Republican leadership killed a bill intended to fight child marriage in the developing world, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010.
The legislation passed the Senate unanimously, where it was cosponsored by Republican Olympia Snowe. In the House, however, just an hour before the vote, the GOP circulated a "whip alert" asking Republicans to vote against the bill. The alert claimed, "There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws."
This is hooey. The Helms Amendment--the foreign policy corollary to the noxious Hyde Amendment, which bans federal Medicaid funding of abortion--already bans American foreign aid dollars from funding abortion. Nothing in the child marriage bill would have changed that.
Sometimes you hear the argument that American feminists spend too much time fighting domestic anti-choice forces and not enough time focusing on the deplorable conditions women and girls live under in the developing world.
This is a reminder that it's all the same fight, because American conservatives will always use the specter of abortion to kill attempts to empower women and girls, both at home and abroad.
Here's a great video from the UN Foundation's Girl Up project on the "girl effect"--how a girl's life changes if she can continue her education at age 12, instead of entering into a forced marriage.